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For the first time since the 1980s, Central America is on Washington’s radar. On this occasion, however, it is not the perceived threat of a communist invasion on the Texas border that has prompted attention, but the seemingly sudden arrival on that border of an unprecedented wave of children from the Northern Triangle countries of Central America: El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.
The spectacle of thousands of frightened, vulnerable children and mothers with babies appeared to have taken the Obama Administration by surprise and provoked a strong public response in the U.S., ranging from compassion by some to anger and rejection by others. Their journey away from poverty and violence, which became an unintended crusade for family reunification, reignited the passions of the decades-long immigration debate across the U.S. The children, most of whom came hoping to reunite with one or both parents quickly became pawns in partisan U.S. politics. At the end of July, the U.S. Congress recessed for its annual five-week vacation without reaching any agreement on supplemental emergency funding to cover humanitarian and security budgets on the border.
Initially afraid of jeopardizing any remaining hope of immigration reform this year, the Obama Administration was slow to respond. Caught in a perceived “Sophie’s choice,” between deporting vulnerable children or implementing a broader immigration reform through executive action, the Administration first indicated support for revisions to the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection and Reauthorization Act (TVPRA),2008 anti-human trafficking legislation that protected the legal rights of children from countries with non-contiguous borders to the U.S. In the first days of the media blitz, Democrats including the President, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged expedited deportations of the children, infuriating the Hispanic Caucus and immigration advocates who immediately pushed back. Meanwhile, the leaders of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras emphasized respect for the legal and human rights of the children and family reunification over repatriation.
On July 25th, the three countries’ presidents met with President Obama to discuss immediate and long-term solutions to immigration. “The American people and my Administration have great compassion for these children and want to be sure they are cared for,” the President declared. Although the meeting ended with no announcements ofspecific programs or assistance, the Central American presidents endorsed the Obama Administration request to Congress for additional foreign assistance as part of its broader supplemental request to fund the U.S. response to the increased migration.
El Salvador’s President Salvador Sánchez Cerén, Guatemala’s President Otto Pérez Molina, U.S. President Barack Obama and Honduras’ President Juan Orlando Hernández.Source: Getty
Publicly, the Administration insists most of the children will be deported; in fact, as of mid-July, many of the unaccompanied children detained by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) had been released to family members or sponsors, while thousands more of the nearly 60,000 detained since October 1, 2013 remain in detention centers or shelters around the U.S. All have been or will be assigned dates for immigration hearings, albeit months or years in the future.
In the final days of July, immigration attorneys were distressed at the speed-up in hearings of recent arrivals. Federal officials apparently ordered the most recent cases to appear at the head of the line in court and without legal representation according to one angry attorney who said, “These children cannot be processed as if they were cattle.”
The hurried exodus of children in recent months is attributed to rumors assuring desperate families of legal status for their children once they step foot across the border. Violence and poverty are causal factors of all migration, but in searching for reasons why parents would allow their children to embark on the dangerous journey, the fierce human desire for family reunification must not be underestimated: According to some estimates, 90% of the arrivals have family in the U.S.
As the crisis unfolded, the U.S. demands on the Salvadoran government to revise political and legislative decisions before receiving the long-awaited $277 million Millennium Challenge Corporation development grant appeared less relevant and even petty, according to some reports.
On July 2, Rep. Mark Pocan (WI-2) and Mike Honda (CA-17) authored a letter co-signed by an additional fourteen Members of Congress to the State Department, urging an end to the seemingly endless imposition of conditions for El Salvador to receive the tranche: “The United States must not exercise an undue influence on the democratic political processes and internal political decisions,” the Members of Congress wrote, in reference to a dispute over seed purchases. “Haggling over trade rules is a losing political hand,” added one journalist. On that issue, an agreement was reached and the State Department was apparently satisfied, but quibbling over reforms to money-laundering legislation passed by the Assembly on July 16th continues. The date for the final disbursement of the funds – desperately needed to promote economic investment and provide jobs that could alleviate the exodus of migrants – will be determined by the Treasury Department.
The solutions to crises of mass migration to the border are many, and are not just about the security-focused targeting of enemies such as gangs, cartels, and smugglers, but are also about alleviation of the hopeless, grinding, poverty that foments criminal behavior and compels desperate families to make desperate decisions.
In Washington, Guatemala’s President Pérez Molina asked the Administration to consider one partial solution to the immediate immigration conundrum for Guatemalans by grantingTemporary Protected Status (TPS) to those in the U.S. who qualify, and extending the status to Hondurans and Salvadorans who have benefitted since 1998 and 2001 respectively as a result of natural disasters. TPS is a costly, complicated, and temporary status for immigrants but it allows beneficiaries to work legally and to visit their home countries and their children, alleviating the flow of child migrants desperate to reunite with their parents.
In the end, could a crisis for Washington lead to much-needed international support and attention for the countries of the Northern Triangle? During a brief visit to El Salvador, White House Counselor Tom Shannon tacitly acknowledged the pull of the American Dream and the urgent need for U.S. assistance: “Our challenge,” he said, “is to build the Salvadoran Dream.” The Salvadoran Dream is for a dignified life and a unified family.
CDA will travel to the Rio Grande Valley in August and will publish a detailed report on the crisis in September.
A group of immigrants from Honduras and El Salvador, many of them children, are stopped in Granjeno Texas. Source: Eric Gay, AP
Immigration: A Crisis Foretold
“No punishment, no wall, no army can solve this problem…What could they suffer that would be worse than what they are already suffering?
Oscar Arias, Nobel Peace Prize winner, former President of Costa Rica
Despite a complicated and dangerous international agenda – with crises cascading in Ukraine and the Middle East – the Obama Administration was forced to respond to a combination of media coverage and a negative public reaction to the wave of immigrants – at least 57,000 of them unaccompanied children – which occurred from October 1, 2013 – May 31, 2014. The humanitarian emergency on the border overwhelmed government resources and focused attention on the dysfunctional immigration system. Understaffed immigration courts faced a backlog of over 366,000 cases even before the current crisis. Immigration advocates recently observing court hearings were appalled to see 10- to 14-year-old children appearing before judges without legal counsel or any understanding of the proceedings. Hoping to recruit lawyers, President Obama approved a Justice AmeriCorps Legal Services program and requested supplemental funding for additional judges and courts.
The Republican majority in the House were unlikely to approve a funding request coming from the President, blaming the influx of children on his 2012 executive action, “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” (DACA) that provided legal status for the “DREAMers” who arrived in the country as children before 2007.
Large groups of women with babies and unaccompanied children began to come across the border in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas in recent months. They made no attempt to elude detection by the Border Patrol and, instead, following instructions from smugglers(coyotes) who brought them as far as the border, they sat and waited for the agents. By mid-June, photos of huddled, frightened children wearing sneakers without shoelaces, jeans and t-shirts flashed around the world. Images of children and adolescents sleeping on floors in overcrowded, inadequate, cold detention centers, covered with silver Mylar blankets giving the impression of hundreds of little foil-wrapped baked potatoes in cages, touched the heartstrings of some but fueled a xenophobic response by others.
Holding area, Nogales, AZ. Source: Associated Press
In terms of public response, the fault lines in the U.S. were clear: compassion and good will versus outrage by growing segments of the public and expediency by politicians. The crisis provided a perfect foil for anti-immigrant forces in a highly polarized environment where even children can be portrayed as potential gang members or carriers of disease. Protests erupted in some communities around the country, while others responded with generosity and humanity.
The Obama Administration had been warned for the past two years that while immigration from Mexico was down, the number of immigrants, including children, from the Northern Triangle countries was growing. According to the Washington Post, the warnings went unheeded until officials were forced to recognize the extent of the crisis in June. The priority had been to pass comprehensive immigration reform: “Nobody predicted the scale of the increase,” Obama adviser Celia Muñoz admitted. And, as officials scrambled to find shelters for tens of thousands of children, nobody predicted the non-stop media coverage and public response either.
Administration officials including President Obama first responded by hinting that the 2008 law providing due process for unaccompanied children might be reformed in order to expedite deportations. Faced with huge pushback from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, religious leaders and pro-immigration advocates, officials backed down but still insist publicly that most undocumented children will be deported and, indeed, the first planeload carrying 40 women and children arrived in Honduras on July 19th.
Records show, however, that 53,000 of the 57,000 detained by mid-June were released to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) and that 85% of all unaccompanied children have been placed with a close family member in the United States. They will all be required to appear for immigration hearings in the future. Public discourse aside, a moral and humanitarian resolution to these cases has prevailed, for the moment. Further, according to studies by Syracuse University, 80-90% of those cited for immigration hearings will appear if represented by legal counsel.
As the humanitarian crisis spiraled seemingly out of control, the Administration mobilized: Vice President Biden met with the presidents of El Salvador and Guatemala and the Foreign Minister of Honduras in Guatemala on June 20th; Secretary of State Kerry, in Panama for the presidential inauguration on July 1st met with the three presidents. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson made five trips to the border and traveled to Central America. The Administration submitted an emergency funding request to Congress for $3.7 billion to cover costs on the U.S. side of the border and promote deterrence efforts in the Northern Triangle. One proposal was floated by the Administration that would allow a small number of Honduran youth to apply – in their home country – for refugee status.
For their part, Republicans insisted on the repeal of the 2008 law protecting the children, including a “last in first out” expedited deportation policy and additional border protection. Rep. Randy Weber (TX-14) introduced the “Illegal Entry Accountability Act of 2014,” which received 25 cosponsors and would halt U.S. aid to Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala until those countries have “taken sufficient action to mitigate unlawful U.S.-Mexico border crossings by their respective citizens.”
Texas Governor Rick Perry ordered the deployment of 1,000 National Guard troops along the border, as, he said, a good “visual.” Congressman Joaquín Castro of Texas responded that the Red Cross needs to be on the border, not the National Guard. Some conservative voices have spoken in favor of a more compassionate approach: former Florida governor Jeb Bush exhorted his fellow Republicans to “show compassion” and not allow the influx of minors to become “an excuse to defer comprehensive immigration reform,” while also calling for the deportation of most of the children. Conservative columnist George Will said on Fox News “We ought to say to these children, ‘Welcome to America, you’re going to go to school, and get a job, and become American.’ We have 3,141 counties in this country. That would be 20 per county. The idea that we can’t assimilate these 8-year-old criminals with their teddy bears is preposterous.”
Finally, on July 25th, with just days until the 5-week Congressional recess, Presidents Salvador Sánchez Cerén of El Salvador, Otto Pérez Molina of Guatemala and Juan Orlando Hernández of Honduras traveled to Washington to meet first with the Vice President and State Department officials and then with President Obama. While no major announcements were made, the meeting was described as cordial, with everyone agreeing on shared responsibility for a regional crisis that requires regional solutions. President Obama is expected to make a major announcement by the end of the summer on executive decisions that could perhaps open the door for family reunification but also affect the future national immigration debate.
On July 27th, Congressman Henry Cuellar (TX-28) and Senator John Cornyn (TX) appeared on ABC’s weekend talk show “This Week,” stating that they expected the House to pass a “skinnied down” version of President Obama’s $3.7 billion supplemental bill in the coming week. They predicted House passage of bill providing less than $1 billion, according to the Christian Science Monitor. They also assumed the House enact changes to the TVPRA, removing the children’s right to an immigration hearing, and expediting their deportation process. Reports by the UNHCR have found that the expedited deportation process used for Mexican children, which lawmakers such as Cuellar and Cornyn have advocated matching for children from non-contiguous countries, has failed to protect the rights of those children.
On August 1, the House did pass a $694 million emergency spending bill that would have sped up deportations of children but it was not enough for some members. Another, separate bill was also passed to phase out the administration’s DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program that offers temporary legal status to immigrant children. Neither bill is likely to become law; the Senate recessed for August after it was unable to bring immigration legislation up for debate; and it is likely that Congress will have to address the issue again in September. Following action by the House, press reports indicated that President Obama was preparing measures to implement via his executive authority to fill the void created by Congressional inertia.
“He wanted to be with his mother and nothing would stop him.”
Grandmother of 12-year-old migrant, on Univisión
While this event has become a crisis for some in the U.S., it is an old story for Salvadorans. Refugees and smugglers have made the journey on the well-traveled trail through Mexico for decades, from the Cold War to the drug war. “This is not [just] a phenomenon,” Salvadoran Ambassador Rubén Zamora said, “It is a system… And like any systemic phenomenon, it does not have just one cause or a simple, unilateral solution.”
Financial and political elites in the Northern Triangle states have historically failed the vast majority of their populations, tacitly encouraging youth and adults to take the treacherous journey north, for underpaid jobs and to send remittances home. The hard-earned dollars not only support their families in their home countries but through the purchase of consumer goods further enrich the wealthy and prop up weak governments. By washing dishes, caring for children, and other menial jobs in the U.S., Salvadorans have sent billions of dollars home in recent decades. As Ambassador Zamora noted, many of them are now earning enough money to send for their children. For immigrant parents and desperate children, reunifying the family is the reward for years of separation and of hard work.
The recent wave was sparked by rumors of “permisos,” permits, for children and attributed by many to gang violence in the communities of origin. But, the reality is much more complicated than just gang violence. Deported children will not be returned to “certain death” as some fear, but yes, they will return to the impoverished and violence-ridden communities they fled. These smallest immigrants are the children and grandchildren of the lost generation of Salvadorans who fled violence and poverty in the 1980s and 90s; they are the much-discussed “at-risk youth,” another generation lost, left behind in poverty, in precarious communities, often in the care of relatives and often in abusive situations.
“The choices for youth are, you dedicate yourself to drugs and violence
or grab the road to the United States, as complicated as that is.”
A Guatemalan priest
For the children, the choices are to emigrate, join a gang as a form of survival and social protest – or quietly accept their lot in life. The so-called “danger” advertising campaigns sponsored by USAID and others in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala are unlikely to deter most families from taking the risk of migrating; the dangers are well known.
The border crisis crystalized the polarizing, decades-long immigration debate in the U.S. and the intersection of poverty, violence, the desire for a better life, and family reunification in the three countries. The U.S bears a burden of responsibility, but the wealthy in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are also culpable and must step up, pay taxes, and invest in their own countries instead of elsewhere.
Immigration reform that would allow family visits and orderly family reunification would prevent the current chaos. In the long term, incentives are needed to discourage migration; some Central American leaders suggest a mini-Marshall Plan or an “alliance for prosperity” for the Northern Triangle.
Meanwhile, human trafficking is a multi-billion dollar enterprise and in the U.S., as an investigative report by Joseph Tanfani of the Los Angeles Times revealed, contractors who benefit from the immigration debacle are making billions, too. Efforts to block the exodus, in Mexico for example, will fail and could make the journey even more dangerous. Too much money is at stake for too many people along the entire route from a village in El Salvador or Guatemala or Honduras through Mexico to Texas and beyond.
“A violent manifestation of social inequality”
Pastor Mario Vega
According to a study by the UNHCR, 66% of the young migrants are fleeing violence in their homes and/or communities and 135,000 people have been internally displaced due to violence. Domestic abuse and organized crime account for some of the violence, but much can be attributed to street gangs. As a result of the March 2012 truce, the homicide rate plummeted in El Salvador from about 14 to about 5 per day. But, due to the previous Administration’s failure to maintain the truce and develop an effective public security policy, violence has increased steadily for the past 15 months.
The gang truce was highly controversial, but influential evangelical pastor Mario Vega recently told El Faro that he still hasn’t seen any proposal better than the truce for reducing violence. Vega, not an apologist for the gangs, said he regrets that the country did not seize the opportunity of the truce and insists that dialogue is still a necessary first step toward reducing violence. He believes Benito Lara, the new Minister of Security, is doing exactly what should have been done by President Funes; openly and honestly discussing dialogue, “and no one has had a heart attack!” Gang activity may be criminal, but the gangs are a “social phenomenon, not a criminal manifestation,” he argues, they are not a closed, secretive organization like the cartels. Gang members are “part of the fabric of the community.” Everyone knows who is who and what their gang responsibilities are. Pastor Vega says social investment in education, health care, and recreation is a priority and insists that private enterprise must step up and provide jobs.
While El Salvador’s Attorney General Luis Martínez is preoccupied investigating the origins of the 2012 truce, and an unrelated case of alleged contempt of court by former President Mauricio Funes, President Sánchez Cerén and his security team have been quietly building support for the National Commission on Citizen Security, meeting with churches, non-governmental organizations, media leaders, and business groups to design and implement a comprehensive strategy. Details of the new security policy will be presented soon, the President said, but the public has yet to see a change. The plan does include the reorganization of the National Civil Police, targeting the 63 most crime-ridden communities with a strategy of prevention, repression, rehabilitation, attention to victims, and “strengthening public policies.” Additional funding will be requested to establish the community policing model in every corner of the country, according to Minister of Security Lara.
One example of community policing at work in the department of Usulután was divulged on July 22nd. In that eastern department, some gang members and police are working together to prevent violence. The local police commander appeared on a San Miguel television program with a gang member wearing a balaclava. Calling himself “Travieso,” or trickster, the young man discussed his history and desire for a different life for his son, while the police officer explained the work of the local citizens’ violence prevention committee. It is necessary to communicate with the gang members, the officer said, adding, “This is a human being who needs to be understood.”
An important element of the reorganization of the PNC involves the delicate task of retiring the first promotions or classes who have led the institution since its founding in 1994. Many of the commanders, one unnamed source said, “have ideas that came from the guerrilla or from the military” and are reluctant to change their attitudes toward law enforcement. Due to the quota system established by the Peace Accords, most if not all of the current commanders came from either the FMLN or the military; 256 current members of the institution should have retired according to PNC regulations, but 226 of those are still on the payroll.
Leaders of El Salvador’s National Association for Private Enterprise (ANEP) and the Chamber of Commerce presented a laundry list of measures designed to reduce violence and urged the government to focus on “an objective and technical purge of some elements” of the National Police, citing a survey indicating that 88.6% of Salvadorans have a “bad or very bad” perception of the PNC. The business leaders also called for better coordination among the PNC, the Attorney General’s office and the judiciary.
In the meantime, an incident involving an El Faro reporter raised the specter of rogue elements in the police, specifically in the Anti-Narcotics Division. On July 16th, El Faro investigative reporter Oscar Martínez was stopped and interrogated at gunpoint by agents on his return to the capital from an interview with a source. The officers, wearing balaclavas, said they acted on orders from above. Minister of Security Lara promised a full investigation.
During the current humanitarian crisis the U.S. media has tended to characterize the Northern Triangle governments together as failed states. But, the administrations are very different. In Washington, media attention focused on President Juan Orlando Hernández of Honduras and Otto Pérez Molina of Guatemala. El Salvador, however, may be the most politically committed and prepared to affect change that in the long run will mitigate migration and provide the “better life” that people long for.
But, after just two months in office, the Salvadoran government also faces a cascade of crises. The already critical economic and fiscal situation is compounded by a severe drought in the east, a simmering volcano on the verge of eruption, a jump in the price of beans, and huge losses to coffee growers due to diseased trees. Violence due at least in part to the collapse of the gang truce has returned to near pre-2012 truce levels.
In the context of this very difficult economic and security environment – and the migration crisis – the new Sánchez Cerén Administration has been conducting the state’s business at a seemingly relaxed and calm pace. The style of governance reflects the personality of President Salvador Sánchez Cerén, according to analysts, and the respect he has apparently earned from his peers over decades of political life.
During the first two months of his term, President Sánchez Cerén was praised by reporters for his punctuality; in contrast to former President Funes, Sánchez Cerén is always on time. And as analyst Salvador Samayoa observed to a CDA delegation, he is not seeking attention: “He is not a media diva.” Based on their read of the President’s demeanor, some analysts in Washington detected discomfort on Sánchez Cerén’s part in being in the U.S. capital and in the company of the Presidents of Guatemala and Honduras. A more likely scenario, considering both political reasons and personal style, was a decision to leave the limelight to his counterparts.
Manuel Melgar, the President’s private secretary, described him as austere, hardworking, disciplined, and a consensus builder. He listens, takes his own notes in the frequent cabinet meetings, and asks officials for an accounting of their activities and tasks. International financial institutions have demanded government austerity and Sánchez Cerén – who holds President José Mujica of Uruguay, the “poorest” president in Latin America in great esteem for his simple lifestyle – continues to live in the middle class home he and his family have occupied since the end of the war, forgoing the luxurious Casa Presidencial occupied by previous presidents.
The President also refuses an entourage, most often traveling only with his Minister of Foreign Relations Hugo Martínez. And he has eschewed the vehicle caravans and large security details of previous heads of state. FMLN Secretary General Medardo González described him as “a team builder.” That was his style during and after the war, González said, and continues today. “He is a true statesman,” Melgar added, “I have no doubt that he will unite the country.”
The President is still encouraging dialogue with the right and a tenuous process continues between the government, ARENA and ANEP, the private enterprise association. ANEP leader Jorge Daboub, who adamantly refuses to consider fiscal reform, has nonetheless criticized the new Administration for lack of action on security and economic issues. The President called on Daboub and others to continue talking and be patient, saying “We will work together.” The dialogue process is “hanging by a thread,” he warned, but not broken: “Don’t be desperate; don’t break the bridge because it is the country that will lose.”
The President’s patience did appear to wear thin with the U.S. Embassy, however, as the process to disburse the MCC funds dragged on. After the Assembly finally approved some reforms demanded by the U.S. of money-laundering legislation, the Administration was informed more was required. FMLN leaders indicated publicly that the pressure was not appreciated. “I understand the interests of the United States,” the President said, “but here it is necessary to reconcile the interests of the U.S. with the interests of El Salvador.”
The following day, the President introduced a program of reparations for victims of the war, coordinated by the office of the Secretary of Social Inclusion. The program will include access to healthcare, education, and food security in addition to some financial compensation and measures to “dignify” the victims, acknowledgement of the truth, and acceptance of requests for pardon. “There is no compensation for human life,” the President said…” but we have the obligation – not only moral but also an obligation with the country – to make reparations.”
“The Process Congress Wants to Use for Child Migrants is a Disaster.” Dara Lind, Vox.
“Immigration Reform is Happening.” Shannon O’Neil, Foreign Policy.
“Doing Right by the Unaccompanied Children on our Border.” The American Civil Liberties Union.
“Pipeline of Children: A Border Crisis.” David González and Bob Ortega, Arizona Republic. (Includes extensive reporting and videos.)
“Obama aides were warned of brewing border crisis.” David Nakamura, Washington Post.
“To stem the child migrant crisis, first stop poverty and violence.” Óscar Arias, Washington Post.
“La crisis de los menores: una migración forzada.” Manuel Orozco, El Faro.
“Los niños no se van: se los llevan.” Oscar Martínez, El Faro.
“Dangers Campaign…Our children are our future.” Spots from media campaign in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. Defense Video and Imagery Distribution System.
“El Cuento del Coyote.” Salvadoran government anti-migration spot, sponsored by U.S. Embassy and UNICEF.
“Entrevista con un pandillero.” Univision.
“Los niños que no han podido irse.” Marcela Zamora Chamorro, El Faro.